You Were Never Really Here Review
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a tormented but ruthlessly brutal hired gun sets out to rescue a young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a sex ring, only to find himself weathering a storm of gruesome conspiracy and violent retribution when matters go awry.
That's a misleading introduction if you are unaware of British director Lynne Ramsay’s work. Her latest feature, only her fourth, is as intoxicating and brilliant as her previous three, but just as We Need To Talk About Kevin wasn’t quite the serial killer movie as it could have been described, so You Were Never Really Here isn’t an exploitation revenge genre flick. Watch it on a Friday night with a beer if you like, but you need to be more emotionally prepared than when you drop across a John Wick or Taken. Nothing wrong with a well-timed growly Liam Neeson bon mot, but that isn’t this film. It's a terrifying story that feels reassuring in a genre that would normally use manipulated rage as a narrative fuel.
The story does bear similarity with the late Tony Scott’s Man On Fire, a nihilistic film at odds with his gloriously superficial prior work. You Were Never Really Here isn't even that. Maybe it's a woman's perspective of a traditionally masculine-driven genre or just that Ramsay is a genius who would never go for the obvious or predictable. You Were Never Really Here has a sweetness that undercuts a brutal conflict between impotence and melancholy longing. It has sadness, though also a wicked sense of humour.
Ramsay’s films are a too rare gift. Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin and now You Were Never Really Here are all sublime. Ramsay has had several high-profile near-miss director jobs, such as The Lovely Bones and Jane Got A Gun, and we can only wonder how they would have turned out. She creates films in the manner of an author writing a book, detailed and playing with space and character. All of her films since Ratcatcher are based on novels notable for an unusual perspective, but they are not beholden to the source material and stand on their own.
Challenging assumption or convention while not making the film challenging to watch is a fascinating skill of Ramsay's. Her screenplay adopts a passive narrative that trusts Joe absolutely, never indulging itself or the viewer, the dialogue is stripped back - it could have been made silent - and what is there is natural, with barely any exposition. Every shot is perfectly composed, efficient and rarely what you expect, the camera is a curious stranger to Joe’s mission, often narrowly missing what he has just done. The violence is sudden and staggering, but never gratuitous; this is no exploitation piece, it’s a layered story, and the comparisons made by some with Taxi Driver are apt. The films are two sides of the same coin.
I cannot recall another recent film so in sync with the lead actor and character. They are utterly dependant on one another. Drive with Ryan Gosling or Good Time, a stunning movie by the Safdie brothers, have a similar focus, but You Were Never Really Here is on another level entirely. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible in the role of Joe; rescuing children to account for his own abusive childhood couldn’t sound anymore hackneyed, but between Phoenix and Ramsay it is anything but trite. Phoenix is in almost every shot, holding at a distance everyone but Nina, the girl he is determined to rescue, yet there’s a yearning that he shares with the camera, alleviating what could have been an uncomfortably claustrophobic viewing into a merely uncomfortably tense one.
Even in the touching scenes with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) that include a cheeky Psycho reference, Joe is a tormented soul except when he has his hammer and a brutally violent purpose to use it, a skill at which he quietly excels. The softness in his character is important in the scenes with young Ekaterina Samsonov. She has a magnetic quality and perhaps it is in her necessarily limited performance that we realise just how brilliant Phoenix really is. Despite his intensity, there is generosity. He can share the space not only with his co-stars, but with Ramsay’s camera too, and by extension, with us.
Lynne Ramsay has produced a story with familiar beats in cinema, but every one of her touchstones feels fresh and invigorated, and she makes it look easy. You Were Never Really Here is a tremendous film.
There is a menu option for Extra Features with a single intriguing feature that looks at the relationship between the film and Jonathan Ames’ novella. It’s one minute long and edited like a TV spot. They really shouldn’t have bothered.
Much of the film takes place in daylight and Thomas Townend’s photography combined with Joe Bini’s editing uses natural light beautifully. There are a couple of surreal moments that are breathtaking, in particular, the opening frames and an underwater sequence. Moments at night are captured with similar clarity and the Blu-ray transfer is reference quality throughout. Lynne Ramsay’s compositions are a joy and this release does the film justice
The sound design of the film is astonishing. It isn’t an action film full of crash, bang, wallop and on the contrary, the violence is often in the more focused, quieter moments. In keeping with Joaquin Phoenix’s tormented mind, normal, busy environments such as a train station platform are an oppressive cacophony of sound and brilliantly presented. There is a choice between 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 DTS Master tracks, but I can’t imagine why you’d want to miss out on the full immersive experience the latter gives you.
Jonny Greenwood provides the score and it is brilliant. As with his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, his organic score is tied to Lynne Ramsay’s script such that one couldn’t exist without the other. Matching the disparate nature of the otherwise linear narrative, his work steadily guides all the film’s elements to coalesce into a hypnotic focus. His distinct theme may remind you of Drive, but is ingrained in the film even more so.
You Were Never Really Here is released on digital download, DVD, Blu-ray and VoD from July 2.